The Vice-Chancellor of Olusegun Agagu University of Science and Technology (OAUSTECH), Okitipupa in Ondo State, Prof Temi Ologunorisa, featured on a programme on the state television, where he spoke on sundry issues, including the protracted ASUU strike and solutions to the imbroglio, as well as the need to restructure the university system. BABATOPE OKEOWO reports
Nigerian public universities have been shut 16 times in the last two decades due to incessant strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), while the agitations issues are yet to be unresolved. Why is this so?
First and foremost, it has to do with restructuring. We need to restructure higher education in Nigeria in terms of funding, governance, and a whole lot of things, especially professionalism. When I talk of restructuring, a situation where salaries of university professors are the same in about 50 universities in Nigeria or even state and federal is not acceptable.
There is a need for deregulation because education cannot be totally free. There is no need for the Federal Government to pay the salaries of over 50 universities from Abuja using the IPPIS payment policy, as if the Federal Government does not have another job.
What the government needs to do first is to ensure that there is a level of financial autonomy to some extent where universities can generate their income. Again, if the system requires 100 per cent funding, the government should give them 60 or 70 per cent and let them generate the remaining 30 per cent, while they are also allowed to determine the salaries of their professors. Why should a Professor of Medicine earn the same salary as a Professor of Yoruba studies; I am sorry to have used Yoruba studies as an example.
That is not fair, once somebody becomes a professor; he does not profess again, but continues to earn a salary. So, there is a need for restructuring. For instance, I was in Rivers State two weeks ago, the Vice-Chancellor of the state university cannot even employ or pay a professor on sabbatical leave without going to Visitor and state Governor Nyesom Wike to take permission because it is through the state government with the IPPIS that they pay the salary of professors. That is not acceptable.
The university system has been integrated as part of the civil service and we cannot run a world class university, using that approach. So, universities need some level of autonomy financially and in terms of governance. A Vice-Chancellor in that state university will have to go cap in hand begging the governor because he cannot employ his staff.
That is not acceptable and that is the truth. And, it is the same thing with Federal Government-owned institutions. A federal university cannot hire any staff on sabbatical using the IPPIS. The Federal Government has no business paying salaries of more than 20,000 lecturers from Abuja using IPPIS. It is ridiculous.
You are talking about restructuring of the system, could you shed more light on this?
Yes, unless there is restructuring, even if the Federal Government released money, no amount of money will be enough. Let me tell you a secret; the unions will collect the money and suspend strike, like ASUU will always say that “we suspend strike” but they don’t call off strike. That means, when the money is exhausted, they bring back the strike.
So, it is a cycle because the foundation is wrong. The Federal government cannot continue to be in charge of everything as if the universities don’t have initiatives. So, we have to look at what is the acceptable norm in other climes where things are working. I have worked in the American university system for about five years.
In fact, the so-called federal system of government that we are running, there is no federal university in the United States of America as almost all of the universities are either state or private, and what the Federal Government does is to give grants to selected universities, referred to as land grants universities. These are mostly into agriculture and other allied areas.
The federal government only gives grants. Why must higher education be centralised as if we are running a primary school? We are not giving room for competition; our universities are not competitive because they are centrally controlled. They are not able to attract the best hands.
The best brains are not in the system they have all left. As universities, we are not able to attract students; it is very difficult to get foreign students, foreign staff and professors in our ivory towers. Most of our universities are run by local professors and personnel and in fact sometimes from the local government areas where the universities are located.
Sadly enough, our universities have been reduced to local institutions, and they are no longer competitive. That is the truth. In terms of governance, you cannot employ any staff without going to Abuja to beg for them to be paid. This has rubbed off on the autonomy of the universities and so the system cannot be run like civil service. That is indeed the major problem. Let the Federal Government release money now, I can tell you in another one year, there will be another strike.
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige was quoted as saying that he had successfully conciliated 1,683 industrial disputes since 2015, do you agree with this assertion?
Well, he has the right to his opinion. I don’t have the capacity to look at what he is saying or said. Any minister can come to the air and say anything, so it is not my responsibility to say what he has said is correct or not, but what I know is this strike is getting too long and there is a need for intervention. Maybe the issue at stake is beyond him and he needs to meet with his principal and see how this matter can be resolved.
The minister insists that the role of the Ministry of Labour is to conciliate disputes and does not include the implementation of agreements reached with parties, what is the import of this to ASUU’s struggle?
Yes, let me add here that the federal government owns the federal universities, and who is the visitor to the universities? It is the President of the federation. So, the ASUU agreement is beyond the lecture Minister of Labour and that is the truth. In fact, the implementation of the agreement is long overdue. It was signed in 2009.
So, we are saying that the agreement needs to be overhauled and what the agreement says is that it should be overhauled every five years or thereabout and since 2009 this has not been so. Although I am not speaking for ASUU, as an administrator who is also an ASUU man who understands the workings of the universities, if an agreement is due since 2014 or thereabout and what the government has been having with ASUU is a Memorandum of Understanding and things have been left to get to a turning point.
For instance, a Professor in Nigeria university is earning less than $1,000 Dollars. Then, how do you expect to attract any staff? The Federal Government set up the negotiating team and hence the issues are beyond the Minister, who did not set it up.
He can only speak when he is asked to speak. I think the Minister of Education, the President of the federation will need to sit down and see how the matter can be resolved. So, it is beyond Ngige, as a minister. That’s the truth because the agreement only has life when the President assents to it.
The Federal Government had on Monday March 7 inaugurated a seven-man committee to renegotiate the 2009 agreement with the union. Are you not worried that the interest of Nigerian students is no longer protected with the lingering strike?
ASUU is ready to go back to class to teach, but like you have said the Federal Government needs to meet some minimum conditions. If you go to our universities you will be sorry about the situation. I am telling you; the facilities and infrastructure are just not there. Our universities are local institutions so it is not about bringing students in.
In fact, it is very unfortunate that the masses feel that universities must be open and that we should open the doors to produce any kind of graduates. I mean graduates that have no skills, graduates that carry only useless papers around. These are not what ASUU wants.
ASUU is the only organisation that has integrity in terms of protecting the integrity of the certificates that we i s – sue. And, that is the truth. When this crisis came up some years ago, they gave the government some solutions, and part of the solutions was the Education Trust Fund (ETF), which has today metamorphosed into the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund).
But, you can see what is happening, the TETFund has now been hijacked; it is being used for other purposes so like I have said there is a minimum condition which ASUU has stipulated. I think the government needs to go beyond the level it is now. I know a number of former ASUU officials are serving at different levels of the present APC-led government.
Hence, I am very sure ASUU will listen to them if they are able to shift ground. Like I have mentioned, there are a lot of issues with the IPPIS, for which ASUU came up with an alternative payment platform, called University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS). Let us try this and see if it will work.
There are a lot of unresolved issues with IPPIS, which was designed for civil servants. The template is quite different for academics in the university system because university is a different sector altogether. But, when we begin to collapse universities and treat them like civil service, then we will have a problem and that is what ASUU is saying.
Do you think ASUU’s demands are outlandish going by one of your members, who said on this programme that the demands are unrealistic and that the Federal Government only signed the MoU because they wanted the union to return to work?
I won’t say ASUU’s demands are not realistic. For instance, like I have repeatedly said, the country which wants to attract the best hands, should invest so much in education. The salary of a professor is less than $1,000 dollars, and what we are saying is that we want this salary structure to be reviewed. We have been earning this salary in the last 10 years or more.
I am not comfortable whenever someone now says that the demand is unreasonable. We have the problem of IPPIS. Some Vice- Chancellors have complained that there were issues with IPPIS and ASUU has come up with alternatives, why don’t we give ASUU’s UTAS a trial whether it will work and if it doesn’t work, the government can then throw it away. Thus, it shouldn’t look like the government is too rigid. The government cannot meet all the demands of ASUU, but they need to critically look at the issue of salary; as the university salary is just not attractive at present.
More emphasis is being placed on salary for which some people are saying ASUU is being selfish and concerned more about yourselves, and pocket rather than the well-being of the students and institutions?
The 2009 agreement covers a wide range of issues, but for me as an administrator, the critical area that touches on ASUU is more on salary. I am familiar with some of these demands; the research facilities and the ability of a Vice-Chancellor to run the university smoothly.
I am a Vice-Chancellor of a university, the Visitor and Governor gave me autonomy, and I don’t need to go to Alagbaka, the seat of government, to meet the governor that I want to bring a sabbatical staff to the Department of Applied Geophysics, because the governor has other things to do.
So, why should a Vice-Chancellor need to go to Abuja or to their state governors like the case of Rivers State to get the governor’s approval before he could hire a lecturer on sabbatical? What type of university are we running in this country?